I don’t live in a remarkable house and therefore haven’t treated it very well. My kids are free to play in any room and we just wait each Monday for our cleaners to straighten things out. Because of the mess and the clutter, I never feel like fresh flowers or other nice things go very well in our house. It’s simple and lived in, and up until now I didn’t think those were traits to be proud of.
So I recently read Danielle Postel-Vinay’s book, Home Sweet Maison (William Morrow, 2018) and my whole outlook has changed! Rather than continuing to give up, I’m finally motivated to do something about the house. But I also learned there are actually some things I’m doing right—according to the French.
Postel-Vinay is married to a French man, has lived in France, and had a French mentor starting in her teens. So the French way of living has been a huge part of her life, just like Chinese culture has been part of mine. In her book, she deconstructs a French home room by room and suggests ways to live better in our homes, no matter where we are. So I’ve done a little run down of some of the rooms she describes and her suggestions that stood out to me.
This is what we call the foyer in the US. Postel-Vinay says it’s the most important area of one’s home because it’s what people see first and it should say something about the people living there. Americans usually ignore this space. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, but should show the occupants’ personalities.
Here’s where I may not have failed after all! Our entree is small and is defined by closet doors on one side and the basement door on the other. On the basement door we’ve hung Chinese New Year decorations for the Year of the Dog. Just opposite the front door on the living room wall visible from the entree is a large bookcase filled with my younger kids’ books. This space may not be pretty, but it says a lot about us: we celebrate Chinese holidays and books are important. Just inside the front door, only visible to people leaving the house, is a framed review of my memoir from the leading English newspaper in Hong Kong. That ties in the Chinese decorations on the door and the bookcase opposite the front door. We have no space for a bench or shoe rack, but I think Postel-Vinay would approve of the personal touches and how a visitor will already know a little about us when he/she first walks into our house.
This is the room where we spend most of our time and are supposed to entertain, although that usually takes place in the dining room or la salle a manger since most of our parties revolve around food. We violate the cardinal rule of Postel-Vinay’s salon, meaning that the television is the focal point of our living room and it’s usually on when we’re home. I ignore it and have my bookshelves nearby and another stack of books on a rattan stool my grandparents brought back from Taiwan in 1965. My writing space is in le salon, too, which is just an oversized leather chair and a laptop. But I have framed photos of Hong Kong art and a feminist painting by my friend, Chandrika, so I’ve carved out a little office in the salon and just ignore the TV. Postal-Vinay would approve.
This is the kitchen and has one use: cooking. French kitchens are not like the American open-plan kitchen/dining room. Our dining room is next to our kitchen and there’s little separating the two rooms, but enough to make sure there’s not a ton of milling around in the kitchen. We do have a kitchen island with three stools that came with the house (I’m going to update those soon, after living here for 11 years), but we eat most of our meals in the dining room. The French would approve. Postel-Vinay stresses the importance of eating together, especially for dinner. That’s something we’ve always done. It’s the one time we’re all together and can talk about our days and what’s going on in the world.
One thing I haven’t done in my kitchen that Postel-Vinay suggests is to buy all the same tea towels or dish towels. We have few that match and apart from a Hong Kong taxi tea towel my friend Jennifer gave me a couple years ago, I’m going to donate our dish towels and will buy nice ones that match. It’s a small thing that won’t break the bank, but will make the kitchen look nicer and more French. Since I basically covered the dining room, I don’t think there’s much need to summarize that part of P-V’s book.
She says the bedroom should be simple and there shouldn’t be a TV. We came out looking good on this one, too (after violating that rule in the old condo). All three of our bedrooms upstairs are without TVs and all have just beds, dressers, and bookcases. Postel-Vinay says books should be one’s most prized possessions and that people can tell a lot about a person based on his/her books. Our rooms have lots of clutter, too, which we need to clear out. It’s mostly clothes the kids don’t wear and odd pieces of toys. That’s my goal over the next few weeks. It’s sometimes hard to de-clutter when one reads 5-6 hours a day. What would the French think about that?
Postel-Vinay writes about more rooms in a house/apartment, like the washing room, boudoir, bathroom, basement, library, archives, etc., but I feel like I’ve pretty much covered the gist of her book. You don’t need a ton of resources to follow her plan. I think back to my former condo and how when you opened the door, the long hallway/entryway ended with a little nook of bookcases. That was the first thing someone would see in my old place. The walls of that hallway were covered with black and white photos my brother took in his 20s. And the kitchen was small, but designed for cooking and not entertaining. I broke the TV-in-the-bedroom rule until my daughter was born and our huge TV with the protruding tube was rolled into the living room to make space for the basinette. That’s a no-no in V-P’s book, but we only had 980 square feet of living space and made do with what we had. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?
This is a fun book and it’s fascinating to compare American and French lifestyles. Now to find those tea towels!